riding tallRating: 3.75 stars
Buy Links: 
 Amazon | All Romance
Length: Novel

Before I run this review, I just wanted to take a moment to mention that this is Melanie’s final review for Joyfully Jay. Melanie has been a part of the blog for two years and has contributed many fabulous reviews.  I truly appreciate all her time and effort.  We are so sad to see her go but wish her all the best on her future endeavors. Please join me in wishing her well!

Joe Sutton and Scott Mackenzie are trying to adjust to the new romance in their lives and it isn’t going especially well. Mackenzie is still trying to prove himself after years spent as his ex boyfriend’s “arm candy.” Now Mackenzie’s former modeling career is starting to thrive when all he had hoped for was to revive it enough to pay his bills and subsidize his new business with the church he is remodeling.

But reentering his old life as a model brings back all the high life and fast action Mackenzie was once used to. City life, late nights, booze, drugs, and pretty boys all around. Soon Mackenzie finds that he must decide between the life he had and the life he has now. Life with Joe on the ranch could be everything he ever hoped for if only he can convince himself and Joe that it will work.

Joe too is slowly drowning in family problems and uncertainties about Mackenzie’s life as a model, their commitment to each other, and his own ability to give everyone what they need, including love and support. With his brother Will consumed with his new fiance and his construction business, it’s not only his sisters and special needs nephew that Joe is responsible for. He has a working ranch, with only his younger sister now to help him with the chores and animals. Plus he has just assumed guardianship for the two girls who used to live next door, orphaned when their drunken parents set fire to their house. Then a traumatic event adds one more to the mix. Before Joe realizes it, he is everyones support but his own. And Mackenzie’s. Joe is consumed by his responsibilies, weighed down by trying to manage all his own. Can Joe reach out for help to Mackenzie? Will he and Mac save not only their relationship, but the family as well?

The first book in the series, The Fall, was a story I just loved from the very first word. The characters pulled at my heart and the author’s ability to mix the gravity of real life along with it’s light-hearted joys made it one of my favorites so far this year. So you can imagine my happiness when I saw that the sequel had been released. With great anticipation I picked it up and settled down to see how Joe and Mackenzie had fared thus far in adjusting to their new romance and Mackenzie’s resumption of his modeling career. What I found in Riding Tall was both well written and resoundingly disheartening.

Kate Sherwood has the ability to put characters and family dynamics on the page that feel so authentic that you would swear you know these people. And after spending an entire book with them in The Fall, I had come to feel quite fond of them all. So perhaps if I can use this analogy of a visit to a close friend’s house to describe how I felt about Riding Tall, it might make it all easier to understand.

Picture that old friends of yours, complete with large family that includes siblings, children of varying ages, including several with special needs, have invited you to spend the weekend or possibly even an evening with them. You arrive happy to see all and hopeful for a terrific evening getting reacquainted. It starts off promisingly. You get caught up and there are smiles all around. But as the evening wears on, the tensions between your friends appears, conversations get strained, and you start to notice how exhausted and overburdened everyone appears. The kids start to get tired and bad behavior surfaces, and the room starts to get smaller. Soon everyone has forgotten your presence, so caught up in their own issues, stress, and unhappiness. You are unable to help as no help is being accepted. Arguments grow from soft to loud, leaving you squirming on the sofa. Before long you find yourself edging towards the door and freedom. At the very last minute, one of the couple stands up, reminds their partner how much they love them, and pulls it all together. Calm and happiness is reestablished. Now you are thrilled for them but the door still feels like the best possible choice at the moment because you feel as exhausted and stressed out by the evening as they were.

For me, that’s Riding Tall.

Sherwood’s excellence with her dialog, relationship dynamics, and characterization make everything that occurs here not only realistic but incredibly plausible. For almost 80 percent of this story, Joe is drowning under his own guilt, martyr complex, and assumed responsibilities for, well, everyone and everything. He is exhausted, he has no time for Mackenzie when he is in town and he knows he is failing on every front but doesn’t know how to change the situation he is in. For Mackenzie, it’s time to grow up and realize where his priorities lie, with his career or with Joe and the family. So many adjustments for not only the couple but everyone around them. I am telling you no one is happy here. And with very good reason. Every situation each member of the family finds themselves in is one you will be able to relate to. Teenagers with emotional problems acting out at school, a young child with autism overwhelmed by changes in his life and living quarters, people moving away and moving on. You name it and its happening to Joe, Mackenzie, and their extended family.

The children in this series will haunt you with their issues. Particularly disheartening is the scene where a child’s damaged brain is acting as a recorder, spewing out all the vile things her abusive father had said to her and her sisters. It’s authentic and quite shocking, especially in its impact on Joe. Joe’s reactions to the hate-filled vicious phrases pouring out of that innocent, injured child’s mouth is everything you would expect from a compassionate adult and Joe in particular. The medical issues here and the emotional and physical repercussions that come with having this child move onto the ranch are handled with sensitivity and responsibility. There will need to be constant supervision, therapists of every type, and the long-term prognosis is uncertain. There are no easy band aids, no instant fixes for this large and complicated family. Just realistic scenarios where different problems and issues arise.

Even that happy go lucky, goofy goldendoodle, Griffin, that I adored, changes into a sober working service dog by the end of the story. It is an unrelenting parade of family problems, romance miscommunications, and arguments when they are communicating. No real love scenes, as even the characters acknowledge, because they don’t have the time, the kids are always around, their schedules don’t mesh, and they are exhausted. Bad stuff upon bad stuff is piled on until the characters are buried in a quagmire of too many responsibilities, guilt, and resources. For 80 percent of the story.

Had the author been able to inject even some moments of levity, a realistic scene of hopefulness and temporary cheer, into the proceedings, then it all would have become so much more palatable. Instead we almost reach the end before Mackenzie makes a choice and makes a loving and practical plan. I did so love the ending. It made complete sense and pulled most of the story threads together in a satisfying resolution. It is still a HFN and other characters essential to the family have large problems looming ahead. The special needs children remain just that, children who come with their own sets of challenges and joys. The same holds for the traumatized sisters that used to live next door but are now Joe’s responsibility as well. Oh, and Mackenzie’s dysfunctional family makes an appearance too.

I start inching towards the door again just remembering it all.

I foresee more stories in the series and, yes, I will read all those as well. You don’t give up on those you care for after a particularly stressful and strained visit. You just hope the next is a bit better for all. That is the expectation I will carry with me as I await the next installment. You might find you feel differently about this story than I do. Maybe your threshold for complicated family dynamics is higher than mine. Either way, the decision is yours to make. I will be sticking with the series and its marvelous author. Tell me what you think

Cover artist is Leah Kaye Suttle. Again I found the cover to be a little to generic. Mackenzie doesn’t even like horses or ride.

A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.

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